A California town was leveled by a wildfire. Three years on, it feels the world has forgotten

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An eight-mile wall of flames. Nearly 200,000 acres burned in 24 hours. Sixteen deaths.

In any other modern decade, the events that unfolded in and around Berry Creek, California, in 2020 would have stood apart for their sheer devastation.

But that year, the American west was grappling with a hellish barrage of wildfires that turned the skies an eerie orange, sent tens of thousands fleeing and killed groves of California’s iconic trees. Berry Creek became yet another casualty of the state’s largest recorded fire season.

Three years on, the hamlet, a hardy but impoverished community two hours north of Sacramento, has struggled to recover. Massive financial support never came. The schoolhouse and gas station have not returned. Many residents did not have insurance and are living in trailers and RVs until they can afford permanent housing.

“We haven’t honestly had very much help,” said Tami DePalma, a 57-year-old caretaker who has lived on the mountain for about seven years. Her house burned down in the fire and she’s camping on her land in a fifth-wheel trailer while saving money to cover the cost of a new building permit. “We are the forgotten fire,” she said.

The plight of Berry Creek offers a glimpse of what’s in store in the era of climate crisis – regions hit again and again by increasingly severe disasters that disproportionately affect those with the least, a government unprepared to support them as repeated catastrophes stretch resources, and communities left behind.

Pink clouds in a twilight blue sky, with a white RV in a dirt patch amid burned trees, with a dog in the foreground.
Many residents did not have insurance and today live in trailers and RVs. Photograph: Rachel Bujalski/The Guardian

Berry Creek is remote even by northern California standards. Thirty minutes from the nearest city of Oroville, the town of 1,600 people largely consisted of a few churches, a market and gas station, an elementary school and hundreds of homes tucked into the mountains.

Residents mostly appreciated the distance from town and space from neighbors. The isolation had attracted an unsavory element, locals say – massive illegal pot grows that saw violent crime – but the community was tight-knit, and life in the forest was gorgeous, with its mountain sunrises, winding creeks and hiking trails strewn with crystals.

Most of all, Berry Creek was affordable, a refuge for those who had been priced out of many other parts of the Golden state. Retirees and people with disabilities on limited incomes could buy land. Young families could stretch their dollars. Some survivors of the 2018 Camp fire that leveled nearby Paradise two years prior settled in the community.

With its steep canyons and seasonal winds, fire was a concern. The town had been evacuated before. Officials were working on getting approval for forest-thinning projects to better protect the area from wildfire.

In mid-August 2020, dry lightning ignited hundreds of blazes across California, some of which grew into massive conflagrations. Among them was a fire in a river canyon on US Forest Service land near the Pacific Crest Trail. With resources stretched thin, it continued burning in the unpopulated area as firefighters focused on more perilous blazes. It burned for weeks, growing and joining with another fire, and was dubbed the North Complex fire.

Then came the wind.

Strong gusts caused the fire to explode and soon it was marching through the Sierra Nevada, torching miles of desiccated pines and firs and heading for Berry Creek.

On 8 September, under a darkened sky, DePalma fled, packing her grandchildren and pets into one car, and borrowing a neighbor’s vehicle to get herself out.

Harrowing evacuations were unfolding across Berry Creek as residents loaded their cars and raced down the highway out of town. Flames burned through trees and spread from home to home, the school, a church and even the fire station.

Within hours, Berry Creek was mostly gone. Fourteen people died there, mostly in and around their cars, including a 16-year-old, and two people in nearby Feather Falls.

A sepia landscape under a cloudy sky, of burned trees and a burned-out truck.
The town of Berry Creek was devastated by the North Complex fire in early September 2020. Photograph: Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

Evacuees initially headed for nearby communities in Butte county, which were reliving scenes reminiscent of those two years earlier, when the Camp fire had displaced more than 50,000 people.

For a brief moment, their plight drew national interest. Newspapers documented the disaster. The governor visited the area twice.

Residents were hopeful they would be able to count on the same outpouring of support and massive aid Paradise received after it burned down.

Local agencies and non-profits sprang into action. Temporary shelters opened and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) provided trailers to evacuees as well as grants to help with rent and other expenses and funds for disaster case management. About $1m in donations poured in via the North Valley Community Foundation, a non-profit that has played a large role in local wildfire recovery.

Almost immediately it became clear to survivors that resources were limited.. The aid distributed by the foundation was substantial, but far less than the $62m it had been able to collect and distribute to Camp fire projects.

“The North Complex just got overshadowed. I don’t know if it was fire fatigue among donors, just too many important causes to give to,” said David Little, the NVCF executive vice-president of communications. “We just didn’t have the country’s attention.”

The donations that came in were distributed in the form of grants, primarily as direct assistance to survivors, but $1m isn’t enough to rebuild a whole community, Little said.

Berry Creek residents who asked about existing programs for fire survivors in the region found that some were supported with funding specifically dedicated to helping Camp fire victims, and they were ineligible.

“We certainly didn’t have the same resources,” said Jennifer Haffner, the associate director of the nonprofit Chico Housing Action Team. “It felt horrible.”

Meanwhile, housing options in the region were already limited.

The dislocation of thousands of people from Paradise had severely worsened an existing housing shortage, bringing about a sharp rise in homelessness. Shelters were strained due to the pandemic.

The dual disasters hit the working class the hardest, Laura Cootsona, the then director of a non-profit serving unhoused people, said in 2021. They left people traumatized and scrambling for housing while local non-profits were overwhelmed.


Over the years, the Berry Creek survivors have come to feel even more abandoned.

In the middle of a field of burned and toppled trees is a half-built house, with windows reflecting the evening or morning sun.
A home that has sat under construction for years in Berry Creek, California, after the fires. Photograph: Rachel Bujalski/The Guardian
A red canopy over two gas pumps on a stretch of asphalt with burned trees beyond it.
Part of the gas station still sits in a barren lot where the mini mart used to be, in Berry Creek, California. Photograph: Rachel Bujalski/The Guardian

State and federal agencies helped remove debris in the fire’s aftermath, but residents returned to a town where almost nothing was left. “These big disastrous fires just suck the wealth out of the community,” said retired schools spokesperson Neil Meyer. “They suck the natural resource wealth, they suck the human wealth. They just suck it dry.”

A lucky few, like Meyer, had homes that survived, but most were forced to start from scratch.

Few have had the resources to rebuild. Many didn’t have insurance, after being dropped by their providers in the wake of the Camp fire. PG&E, the utility whose aging equipment caused the Camp fire, settled with the survivors of that blaze and several others for $13.5bn, which helped Paradise’s recovery. But the North Complex fire was caused by a lightning strike – leaving Berry Creek residents with no company to sue for damages.

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Meanwhile, rebuilding costs are steep. Contractors are in high demand, and building permits alone can cost thousands of dollars.

Three years later, many survivors still live in temporary trailers and RVs. Temporary camping permits were due to expire at the end of the year, meaning fire survivors would have to apply for an additional permit and start actively rebuilding permanent homes in order to stay. County building codes require new construction to meet fire-safe standards, unlike some of the trailers and manufactured homes residents had before the fire.

Don Boeger lives with his partner, dog and two cats on a turnoff not far from the old market.

The fire destroyed his trailer and left thick ash, dust and dead trees across his property. Today, the rubble is gone. His new camper trailer is hooked up to PG&E and connected to septic. So far, he’s spent about $800 in permits to be able to camp on his land, and he estimates he’ll have the extra money he needs to rebuild in a year or so. Like other residents, however, his current camping permit was slated to run out in December.

“I just want to live in peace,” he said. “I pay my taxes every year.[But] I don’t have five or $10,000 to pull out for a permit.”

There’s no help available for that, he said.

A white man backlit by what is probably the setting sun stands in a grassy yard amid dozens of burned trees, with the corner of a building in the left foreground.
Don Boeger works in his yard on his property in Berry Creek, California. Photograph: Rachel Bujalski/The Guardian

Some residents are aggrieved with Bill Connelly, the Butte county supervisor who represents Berry Creek. He recently told the local newspaper that he was opposed to continued camping in the area, particularly as some people were living without access to water or septic.

“Frankly some of them haven’t got a settlement … or they were underinsured. At what point do you allow them to live in squalor?” he said.

Connelly said that his position was misconstrued by residents who mistakenly believed the county was going to forcibly remove people from their property in winter. Still, he said, some residents are living in unsanitary conditions.

His office has sought to help residents, he said, and is trying to find more resources for the community, including veterans. But some people shouldn’t live in Berry Creek, far from services and support, he said.

Connelly’s position has frustrated residents like Boeger. “We want to live on our own property that we spent a good portion of our lives busting our ass to pay for,” he said.

Boeger’s tenant, Ernest Creamer, a 78-year-old veteran who has lived in Berry Creek for 50 years, points to the work people are doing.

An elderly white man with a full gray beard, dark baseball cap, and large suspenders over a work shirt holds a shovel or other implement with his right hand and rests his chin against it.
Ernest Creamer, 78, sits outside his trailer where he lives with his wife on his friend Don Boeger’s property in Berry Creek, California. Photograph: Rachel Bujalski/The Guardian

“Not everybody is living in squalor. I’ve helped my landlord clear his property off,” he said. “Most of the people that are living in trailers, they’re improving their property. They’re getting rid of dead trees. They’re cutting down the brush.”


More support is desperately needed, residents say.

“Rebuilding, you know, you can’t do it from your own bootstraps. Outside money has to pour in to replace that wealth, and with the Camp fire, eventually PG&E was a source of a great deal of that wealth,” Meyer said. “We can’t restore ourselves from our own resources.”

Sarah Anderson, a professor at UC Santa Barbara who has studied inequities in resource distribution after a wildfire, said the difference in ignition sources for the fires have led to starkly different recoveries.

“Everywhere is essentially ripe for a fire. It’s really mostly chance what the source is,” she said. “It’s the conditions that we have collectively produced on the landscape that are driving this. But because of the liability system we get really different outcomes.”

In October, Berry Creek residents headed to the Butte county board of supervisors meeting in hopes of getting the board to allow them to continue camping on their properties in RVs and trailers for another few years.

They wanted the same amount of time that Paradise had received, said Tara Pash, a resident who has led advocacy efforts for the community. In Paradise, residents are allowed to continue camping on their property in RVs until at least April 2024.

“Folks are so beaten down,” said Pash. Her home survived, but she has watched neighbors struggle.

Speaker after speaker shared their challenges around rebuilding, including residents who had been scammed out of thousands of dollars by contractors. By the end, the board, which includes a survivor of the Paradise fire, were sympathetic. They voted to allow residents to continue camping in RVs and trailers until June 2025.

That date will likely be a “line drawn in the sand”, Connelly said.

He expects the community will recover, he said, likely as a more affluent place than it was before.

An extended amount of time could allow DePalma to rebuild, she said: “I’m trying my hardest. I want to rebuild. Right now, things are just really financially tight.”

Boeger hopes that by 2025 he will have something more permanent. He’s been helping to mill lumber for his neighbors and eventually will start his own rebuild, something small.

An older white man sits on the raised wood foundation, his arm around a dog, in bright light from the setting sun.
Don Boeger sits in the shed he’s building to store his belongings on his property in Berry Creek, California. Photograph: Rachel Bujalski/The Guardian

“I’m outside most of the time anyway. I don’t need a big house,” he said.

Creamer plans to stay put as well and watch Berry Creek’s recovery. He’s optimistic. The school is rebuilding, and the owner of the gas station has pledged to return.

“We were a very proactive community and we still are. It’s just we suffered this devastating loss. But we’re still the same good people,” he said. “It’s gonna take a while to recover.”

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